MIAMI – Today in Aviation, a Boeing 747SP operating as Pan Am flight 50 flew to/from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) via both poles on October 28-30, 1977. The flight took place in celebration of Pan Am’s 50th anniversary.

Pan Am’s fllight 50 made aviation history by setting a speed record for a polar circumnavigation. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, its average speed was 487 mph (784 km/hr). The one-off flight on the new Boeing Special Performance 747, named ‘Clipper New Horizons’, started in San Francisco, flew over the North Pole, and landed in London, its next destination.

The aircraft flew to South Africa after refueling in the UK capital. Before taking off again and winding up back in SFO, it soared over the northern part of the South Pole and landed in New Zealand. The Boeing 747SP’s total flight time was 54 hrs, 7 min, and 12 sec, and it cruised at 43,000 feet (13,100 meters) above and around the globe.

Pole-to-Pole Pan Am Flight 50. Boeing 747SP takeoff. Photo: Wiki Commons

The Reasons behind the Boeing 747SP


A shortened variant of the Boeing 747 widebody airliner, the Boeing 747SP (Special Performance) was designed with a longer range in mind. To compete with the DC-10 and L-1011 trijet widebodies, introduced in 1971/1972, Boeing wanted a smaller aircraft capable of covering longer distances.

However the idea for the 747SP came from Pan Am in a 1973 with a proposal for a 747 variant capable of carrying a full payload non-stop on its longest route between New York and Tehran. Iran Air (IR) was also in on Pan Am’s request; their mutual interest was for a high-capacity airliner capable of covering the New York-Middle Eastern routes of Pan Am and the proposed New York-Tehran route of IR.

On February 4, 1976, the SP version, which first flew on July 4, 1975, was approved by the FAA and entered service with Pan Am that year.

In terms of its defining features, the Boeing 747SP is 47 ft (14 m) shorter than all the remaining 747 models. To compensate for this, Boeing reduced its main deck doors to four on each side. Additionally, the vertical and horizontal tailplane is bigger and has been simplified by its wing flaps. With a 700,000 lb (320 t) MTOW, it can fly 276 passengers over 5,830 nmi (10,800 km) in three classes.

In 1987, the last SP was delivered while others were converted to Head of State transport. Alas, as sales did not achieve Boeing’s planned 200 units, only 45 aircraft were ever produced. One notable use of the type is its repurposing as the aircraft for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

The Flight around the World


Before Flight 50, Pan Am had flown its Boeing 747SP Clipper 200 ‘Liberty Bell Express’ the previous year to celebrate the US bicentennial, on a world record-breaking round at the equator. 98 passengers were carried on the flight, which cost $2,912 for first-class seats and $1,838 in economy.

Pan Am decided to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary with the same model, but this time flying it from pole to pole and around the world. The flight would have as guests Miss USA and Miss Universe. Miss England would join Miss South Africa when stopping in London and Cape Town, and when stopping in Auckland, Miss New Zealand would join the flight en route.

There were 165 first-class passengers, showered with Pan Am 50th anniversary gifts and souvenirs. Flight Crews were hand-picked, 14 meals carefully prepared, and classic films were shown. The bicentennial flight was so popular that some who took it came back for Flight 50, which was even advertised in The Wall Street Journal. Within three days, the seats were sold. Passengers were willing to spend $2,200 for a weekend to travel around the world and in the process become part of aviation history.

Image Courtesy: CNN Travel, 2018.

Article sources: CNN, Airliners.net. Featured image: Pan American Boeing 747SP Clipper New Horizons. Photo: Erik Simonsen

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